JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Winnie Mandela, wife of black leader Nelson Mandela, is scheduled to go on trial Monday for assault and kidnapping charges linked to the case of a slain 14-year-old boy that led to her demise as 'mother of the nation.'
African National Congress Deputy President Mandela has pledged support for his wife, whose determined anti-apartheid stance once assured her unquestioning popular support, but has said the case will not interfere with ANC efforts to end white minority rule.
Mrs. Mandela, 56, and seven co-defendants scheduled to appear in Johannesburg's Rand Supreme Court face four charges of assault and four of kidnapping.
While the charges could carry a maximum penalty of death, lawyers have said the case, if proved by the state, would at most draw jail terms for the eight.
Mrs. Mandela was 'relaxed and ready' Sunday, said a member of the Mandela household, who declined to identify himself, in a telephone interview.
The case has been complicated by the disappearance of four of the accused, who jumped bail in December. Witwatersrand Attorney-General Klaus von Lieres, who filed the charges in September, has said the trial could be postponed if the four are not found by Monday.
Further muddying the proceedings are allegations that two of the three key witnesses due to give evidence against Mrs. Mandela have been employed by the ANC, of which Mrs. Mandela is a senior official.
The anti-apartheid Weekly Mail newspaper reported Friday that the two, Barend Mono and Gabriel Mekgwe, were being 'quietly employed' by the ANC, raising questions about their quality of their testimony.
Mrs. Mandela, apart from enjoying the full allegiance of her husband, is the head of the ANC's social welfare department, serves on several of its lesser committees, and holds influence throughout the organization.
The ANC has dismissed the Weekly Mail report and charged the trial is part of 'a pattern of harassment and persecution to which Comrade Winnie has been subjected for the last 30 years.'
Mrs. Mandela was repeatedly detained -- including 17 months in solitary confinement in 1969 -- and her activities were severely restricted while her husband was in jail.
The ANC deputy president has expressed full confidence in his wife, noting she stood by him in the years before he was freed from 27 years in prison in February last year. Mandela, 72, said last October, however, that the case 'will not interfere' with the ANC's fight against apartheid.
When von Lieres announced in September that Mrs. Mandela would face charges, she said she welcomed the trial as a chance to 'clear my name. ' She has retained as chief counsel one of South Africa's best-known human-rights lawyers, George Bizos, who defended Nelson Mandela in 1963 before the ANC leader was convicted on charges of plotting to overthrow the government.
Mrs. Mandela's case arises from the Dec. 29, 1988, abduction from a Methodist Church hostel in the black township of Soweto of four youths who were taken to Mrs. Mandela's home by members of the Mandela United soccer team, which doubled as her security guard while also allegedly terrorizing Soweto residents.
According to state prosecutors, all four youths, including Joseph 'Stompie' Moeketsi Seipei, were beaten by Mrs. Mandela and the seven other defendants after they were accused of having sex with a white minister.
Seipei was taken from the house three or four days later and murdered by the former Mandela United 'coach,' Jerry Richardson, who was found guilty by a court in August last year and sentenced to death.
Of the three other youths, one escaped from the Mandela house Jan. 7, 1989, and two others were released Jan. 16 amid a community uproar over the incident that prompted leading anti-apartheid groups to denounce Mrs. Mandela.
Until then, blacks across the country had called her 'mother of the nation' in honor of her anti-apartheid activities and her husband's status. Since the Seipei murder, Mrs. Mandela has been roundly criticized in townships and secretly reviled even in some ANC circles.
According to the charges filed by von Lieres, Mrs. Mandela 'did unlawfully and intentionally assault (Seipei) by hitting him with open hands, clenched fists and a sjambok (whip), also by kicking him, by lifting him up and then dropping him to the floor, by trampling on him and by hitting him on his knees, with intent to do grievous bodily harm. '
The prosecution listed 30 witnesses it intended to call, including the three youths who survived the abduction, of whom two are the witnesses allegedly now in the ANC's employ.
Mrs. Mandela had long been at the center of controversy as a fierce anti-apartheid critic before her husband's release at the start of President Frederik de Klerk's racial reforms.
She prompted widescale publicity in 1986, when she seemed to endorse 'necklace' murders, in which victims are burned to death with gasoline-soaked tires around their necks.
'Hand-in-hand, with our matches and our necklaces, we shall liberate this country,' she told a crowd in April that year.
Mrs. Mandela also has frequently spoken out about ANC policy. Following the movement's suspension of its 29-year-armed struggle against white minority rule last August, she described the change as only a 'strategy,'drawing a firm public rebuke from veteran ANC member Walter Sisulu.